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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 December, 2004, 18:32 GMT
Q&A: The Colombia connection
The arrest of three Irishmen in Colombia back in August 2001 sparked a major controversy in the Northern Ireland political process.

James Monaghan (left), Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly
Arrest warrants have been issued for the three men
Their initial acquittal has now been overturned by a higher court which imposed sentences of 17 years on each of them.

BBC News explains the background to the case.

Q: What started all this off?

On 11 August 2001, authorities in the Colombian capital Bogota said they had arrested three Irish men who had been in an area of the country controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), marxist rebels waging an ongoing guerrilla war.

The three men were named as James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley.

The authorities accused them of being members of the IRA and of training FARC fighters, something they denied.

The three men had been travelling on false passports. At first they said they were eco-tourists but later added they were there to study the Colombia peace process. The trial was delayed because of security fears.

Q: What effect did this have in Northern Ireland?

While the IRA is long known to have nurtured international links with paramilitary organisations including ETA in Spain and Palestinian groups, the news came as a total surprise. While security forces tried to assess what was going on, Sinn Fein denied that the three men were working for the party.

The first question that people wanted answering was, if the men were members of the IRA, what were they doing in Colombia?

And if they were there as members of the IRA, what implications did this have for the peace process?

Q: How did unionists react?

With suspicion. They demanded answers from Sinn Fein at a time when the peace process was deadlocked.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble had resigned as first minister of the power-sharing assembly because the IRA had yet to start decommissioning weapons.

He said the suspected Colombia connection did nothing to encourage the unionist community to trust republicans.

Their mood worsened when it emerged that the three men did indeed have republican links.

James Monaghan had escaped explosives charges in the 1970s but had resurfaced in the 1980s as a member of the Sinn Fein executive.

Niall Connolly was described as Sinn Fein's Spanish-speaking Cuba representative. Martin McCauley had been a party worker.

Q: What did the republicans say?

The IRA tried to end the matter with a statement on 19 September 2001, accusing others of "ill-founded and mischievous speculation". It insisted that it had neither sent anyone to Colombia nor interfered in its internal affairs.

However, as the parties found a way out of the deadlock in October, Sinn Fein changed its position.

On the day before the IRA decommissioned weapons for the first time, Gerry Adams admitted that Niall Connolly worked for the party in Cuba, but he and other party leaders had not been aware of this fact.

Q: What happened next?

The Colombia connection has not been an issue in Northern Ireland alone.

An estimated 90% of cocaine and 65% of heroin sold in America comes from Colombia. Washington blames "narco-terrorist" organisations, led by Farc for this supply.

Senior figures in Washington said they were determined to investigate the IRA's alleged involvement with Colombia's rebels, a mood that hardened in the wake of September 11's war on terror.

The issue came to a head in March 2002 when a US Congressional committee asked Gerry Adams to testify.

He declined, saying that he did not want to prejudice the forthcoming trial of the three men.

For its part, the IRA issued another statement, underlining that it had "not interfered in the internal affairs of Colombia and will not do so".

Q: How did the committee react?

The committee subsequently said that it believed that the IRA was one of a number of groups who had visited Colombian rebels.

"It is likely that in the former Farc safe haven these terrorist groups had been sharing techniques, honing their terrorism skills, using illicit drug proceeds in payment".

Q: What happened when the case reached court?

In April this year, the three men were acquitted of the most serious charge of training Marxist rebels in Colombia. They were found guilty of travelling on false passports and paid a fine.

But the judge ordered them to remain in the country while the Colombian attorney general appealed their acquittal.

This appeal was successful and the men were each sentenced to 17 years. Arrest warrents were issued but reports from Colombia say the trio have fled the country .




SEE ALSO:
Irishmen stay put in Bogota jail
29 Apr 04 |  Northern Ireland
Colombia accused address court
30 Jul 03 |  Northern Ireland
Diplomat testifies in Colombia
10 Apr 03 |  Northern Ireland
Colombia trial adjourned
18 Feb 03 |  Northern Ireland
Colombia 'IRA' trial adjourned
04 Dec 02 |  Northern Ireland


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